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Pet owners worry as dog flu spreads

10/19/2005

CHESTNUT RIDGE, N.Y. — Every inch the pampered purebred,
the fluffy white dog Curry stands like a statue for his haircut at
the Best Friends Pet Resort and Salon.

He looks, and is, perfectly healthy. But Curry, a bichon frise,
was one sick puppy a month ago. And the Best Friends kennel was
forced to close for three weeks after more than 100 other dogs
began showing signs of what turned out to be a new disease: canine
influenza virus, or dog flu.

"He was extremely lethargic, having a hard time breathing,"
said Curry's owner, Margaret Ragi of Upper Saddle River, N.J. "The
life just wasn't there in his eyes. We were really worried."

Lots of dog lovers are worried these days. Experts say the flu
is spreading steadily through the nation's dogs, with no vaccine
available to curb it. Perhaps 5 percent of its victims are dying.

Researchers recently found to their surprise that the virus had
crossed over from horses to dogs, striking greyhounds at racetracks
in 11 states. Now it has been found in pets, with cases documented
in California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North
Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state.

"One-hundred percent of dogs will be susceptible," said Edward
Dubovi, director of the animal virology lab at Cornell University.
"I would expect to see this infection moving thorough groups of
dogs until a large percentage gets infected and there are a lot of
immune dogs."

Cynda Crawford, a veterinary immunologist at the University of
Florida, said researchers are getting positive readings on 30
percent to 40 percent of the blood and tissue samples sent in by
veterinarians who think they might be treating a dog with
influenza. The symptoms include a cough, low-grade fever and a
runny nose.

Exactly how many dogs have died is unclear. Crawford said many
of the animals were young and otherwise healthy.

Many pet owners and veterinarians have been fooled because some
of the symptoms mimic a common, less dangerous bacterial infection
known as kennel cough.

As with human influenza, dog flu is most easily contracted in
gathering places — kennels, dog shows, animal shelters, even dog
runs in parks.

That has resulted in a lot of lonely dogs, as pet owners keep
them home to avoid the flu. Several days after the kennel in
Chestnut Ridge reopened, there were just six dogs in "doggie day
care," down from the usual 17, and just 50 boarding, down from
150, said manager Kelly Kurash.

The suburban New York kennel had closed Sept. 10 after staffers
realized that the illness going around was not kennel cough. Dogs
were sent home or to hospitals, and one sheepdog died a few days
later.

"We knew we were dealing with something more serious," said
Deborah Bennetts, spokeswoman for the Best Friends chain, based in
Norwalk, Conn. "It seemed to be spreading and some dogs were
getting seriously ill."

Tests on the dogs confirmed the new virus.

Best Friends had the entire building disinfected and changed the
air conditioner filters. When the kennel reopened Sept. 30, some
dogs were turned away. At the 42 Best Friends kennels in 18 states,
"we're not allowing any dog that has boarded within the last two
weeks or has been at a dog show or some kind of group setting like
doggie day care," Bennetts said.

Dubovi said researchers are at work on a vaccine, but it could
be months before it becomes available.

Some vets fear another upswing in cases at Thanksgiving and
Christmas, when, as in the late summer, many people go away and put
their dogs in kennels.